Worth Reading

Worth Reading: Interview with Author Rita Dragonette

…. Author of The Fourteenth of September.

ABOUT “THE FOURTEENTH OF SEPTEMBER”
The Fourteenth of September portrays a pivotal time at the peak of the Vietnam War through the rare perspective of a young woman, tracing her path of self-discovery and a “Coming of Conscience.”

How did you develop the characters in “The Fourteenth of September,” and how much did you pull from your personal experiences as a young woman during the Vietnam War era?

The story is actually based on my own circumstances during the time. I was in school on an army scholarship similar to ROTC, which is the only way I could afford college. I remember agonizing if being in the army and taking their money made me complicit in the war. The combination of the Lottery (choosing who, as we felt, was going to die as if in a game show) and then Kent State (watching the government shoot students just like us) challenged everyone. Even then, I felt it was a seminal time frame for my generation and an equal conflict — as much for a woman as for a man — and that the latter wasn’t fully appreciated.

So clearly, Judy, my protagonist, is based on what I experienced, though she’s been heightened — sometimes braver and more aware, sometimes not. I added attributes and issues she needed to support the story.

That said, the story was never intended to be about me — only based on what went on during this very short time frame between mid-September of 1969 and May of 1970. It was actually a writing instructor who suggested I use my own story. I was telling him that my protagonist needed a conflict similar to what I had experienced, and he told me I’d never be able to come up with anything better — or more original — than what I actually went through. That gave me the “permission” I needed to use it without feeling self-indulgent or even lazy.

Is it difficult to write characters based off of people you know? Does it add more pressure?

It’s both easier and harder. I admit the first tendency is to model people you know, and certainly some are based on bits and pieces of actual people, and I’ve thanked them for what I’ve appropriated in the acknowledgments page of my novel. The few I’m still in touch with are a bit worried but shouldn’t be. There are two people I haven’t seen since the time frame of the novel that might recognize themselves to a degree that would be uncomfortable if I were to hear from them again. Since that is unlikely, I felt free to borrow and embellish. In the main, I’ve done what any writer would and pulled apart and combined aspects of people I knew or knew of, people I met after. I took terrific license with some and little with others. One pivotal character I created full-cloth, one woman is almost a complete 50/50: looking like one woman I knew, but having the personality of another. As I proceeded with subsequent drafts I changed more and more of the characters to less resemble their “real” models, as I did the circumstances of the story. They began to “direct” who they needed to be.

The names were actually harder to work through than the character descriptions. It was a time of what I call catch-phrase names. So there actually was someone named “Wizard” — I just couldn’t improve on that. And the girls all had musical names. I, of course, was “Lovely Rita,” and it was hard not to use that. I did use the actual name of one person who is gone now, as a homage.

It’s appealing to go through the parallels between fact and fiction but also dangerous. I probably wouldn’t have been able to publish this book while my mother was alive. And I want it on the record, for example, that although I based Judy on a lot of my experiences, that is NOT how I lost my virginity.

So much of your book is about activism. How do you think what you lived through in 1969-1970 relates to what we see happening right now in the United States?

What keeps occurring to me when I see, for example, the responses to the protests after the last election, and, in particular, the “Never Again” movement is the similarity. If you look at the world today, you see how we’re questioning our top leadership and governing bodies. Like during the Vietnam War, the situation in the country inspires frustration, rage, and fear.

You protest when you don’t have power. In the time frame of my story, the whole atmosphere — aside from genuine fear — was of being powerless. You had to be 21 to vote in those days, yet the majority of draftees where closer to 19. It felt like these old guys were using us as pawns, as they were playing with politics over a war that, by the end of 1969, no longer had any patriotic or save-the-world point. It was about pride. We’d never lost a war, and we weren’t going to lose this one. I don’t mean to oversimplify — we were kids —we were focused on the equation: I could be sacrificed for a bad war/lost cause, just so the U.S. doesn’t look bad.

Today, the presidential vote itself was a protest for certain segments of the population who felt they weren’t being heard. Having no power always feels like something is not fair. And when you can’t impact what you feel isn’t fair — you protest. Different tools are available at different times — voting, marching, property destruction, social media campaigns. The vehicles change, but the impulse is the same. The proper channels have let us down, so we turn to emotion — it’s rage. When that fear and rage are channeled into the political process, it can be positive. When the government appears entrenched in a point of view, it seems hopeless.

Our answer was to hit the streets. The “Never Again” kids know they don’t have political power at their age; their answer is social media. They can organize more quickly, refine their messages and get them out, virtually instantaneously. If we’d had that during the Vietnam War, it would have ended much sooner.

The roots of powerlessness in the face of death or unfair policies are the same, l969 to 2018; the avenues for protest have vastly improved, though the “statement” of a huge march is equally powerful. Significantly, women’s voices are even stronger.

You call this a coming-of-conscience novel. What do you mean by that?

I think we’re all familiar with the coming-of-age novel, where a character grows into adulthood. Judy is only 19, and you could make a case for that for “The Fourteenth of September.” She does evolve from a wide-eyed, naive new recruit, into a member of the counterculture who accepts everything and goes with the crowd, and finally into what we’d probably call today a critical thinker with a mind of her own.

Further, all her issues have to do with character. She works really hard to figure out who she is if she stays in the army and who she is if she leaves. She weighs the stakes, the impact, the consequences — and not only for her — for her family, for her country. Ultimately, she has to decide who she is and in many ways, who she will be ever after, before she can decide what she will do. That’s pretty heavy for a teenager. I think “coming-of-conscience” characterizes it much more specifically than “coming-of-age.”
So many of the narratives of the Vietnam War are from the perspectives of men. Why was it important to you to write this book from the female perspective? Do you think the female perspective hasn’t been as prominent in our discussions of the Vietnam War?

I think we generally think of and tell “war stories” through the soldiers that were actually fighting. I’m sure there are probably stories about mothers and girlfriends on the home front, and I know there was at least one memoir by a nurse who was in Vietnam. I was interested in the female point of view from another “front,” if you will, which was the campus, where so many of the draftee age men were. It was rarefied — no real parental influence, no real primary source information. We weren’t even allowed televisions in our rooms then, so even though Vietnam was, as they say, the first war that was in our living room every night, it wasn’t in the dorm room. Our information was word of mouth from each other, and we believed it.

As women, there was a responsibility to do whatever you could, in a way, to compensate for the fact that you weren’t in actual danger of losing your life. We led a lot of the antiwar activities, helped our friends and boyfriends dodge — which often included risky behavior like not eating — or cope, which often included drugs. We held hands, dried tears, offered physical comfort, listened to them rage, mopped up vomit, talked them down from bad trips, experienced survivor guilt. It felt like we were in it — we were in it. Judy’s dilemma is, of course, one of the most poignant in terms of guilt. She’s really in it — all but her life is on the line.

When discussing significant events in modern history, we often hear the phrase, “That’s not how I remember it.” In your research, did you come across anything that was different from how you remembered? And if this happened, how did you reconcile your memories that might have conflicted with other accounts?

I think we all believe our memories are infallible, until they aren’t. Though “The Fourteenth of September” takes place in a time frame that isn’t strictly historical fiction, it had the same requirements: I couldn’t change the dates or the facts of actual events. When I checked my memory against research I was surprised by some of the line up: that the Draft Lottery was the day after Thanksgiving vacation, which was actually cruel, if you think about it. And the events of what I cover, roughly a six-month time frame, were tightly compressed. It was very difficult to work all the character development around the actual calendar. For example, I had to race a character with a high lottery number through dropping out and induction before Kent State, and I barely had a week to spare. In experience, this time frame seemed like years, but it was really very fast.

The surprising facts that were larger in context had to do with the role of women during the war. I remember feeling very disenfranchised, yet I came across many sources who were indignant at that attitude and felt instead that women had actually led much of the antiwar movement. I ended up acknowledging that although there were always strong and vocal leaders, there was still tremendous sexism that intimidated many others.

On your website, you talk about the ethics of unwinnable wars, and of course this seems relevant even now. Can you describe what you mean by unwinnable wars?

It’s important to remember that by l969 any vestige of patriotism around the Vietnam War had evaporated. It was down to a body count to offer leverage at the Paris Peace Talks. History shows that McNamara and others knew we couldn’t win but felt we couldn’t quit. We were constantly hearing that we couldn’t end the war because we’d never lost a war. It was about pride and face, reasons that simply were not felt by my generation to be worth dying for. And yet they kept the war going.

As the Ken Burns documentary illustrated, the war was unwinnable for many reasons, including the fact that we didn’t understand the objective and culture of the country, or that of the enemy. And in the end, nothing was achieved. More recently, we clearly didn’t understand Iraq, and our current understanding of Korea and Syria is questionable. And yet we teeter on the brink.

This begs the question: Is it ethical to consider and follow through on a war you know you can’t win, or for which the cost will be too great to justify? Cooler heads have prevailed to keep us out of war for just these reasons since Vietnam.

But today, with the tenuous world situation, we could be facing what looks to be an inevitable — and probably unwinnable — war (or wars) that will require far more soldiers than a volunteer military can provide. And, we continue to bend over backwards to avoid another military draft. These issues are the very subject of my novel.  How we faced them in the Vietnam era highly informs the caution and fear with which we’ll be approaching the current conflicts if they escalate. The world situation makes this story relevant to all audiences today.

So many iconic moments in American history happened during this time period. Did one impact you more than others? How so?

I think many people of that generation would tell you that Kent State was a breaking point. It began with a lie. The Nixon Administration had said we weren’t going into Cambodia — no expansion of the war — and it was bold-faced. Hard as it may be to believe today, media was limited, and we only heard and therefore assumed to be true — though obviously that was disavowed later on many levels — what we were told. And then here we were in Cambodia, after all. The protests were angry, of course. The war was being accelerated, not contained. It was outrageous, more young men would die. Of course, there were protests; of course, those protests would be on campus where the population of young men who would be sent to die was among the greatest.

And then, unbelievably, students were shot dead at one of those protests. Basically, the government was killing students over free speech. When we heard it at my campus, we didn’t believe it at first. It was too fantastic, too horrible to comprehend…until we had to. It wasn’t enough that we could be sent to Vietnam to die, we could die here. I have a chapter in my book about that day and what we did in answer that is based on the campus I was on. It was not something I had to research. I remember every second.

Finally, you host literary salons in your home. Tell us about them.

About 10 years ago a friend had written a novel and, unbelievably, had never been to a reading and was terrified at the prospect. To assuage her concern, I offered to invite a small group of friends, who I knew were avid readers, to my home, where she would be able to talk about the book and read an excerpt in a totally supportive environment. To our delight, the reading spurred a wonderful conversation among all the participants, and the invitees asked for more. I realized that an intimate gathering like this is a great way to introduce new works of authors to an excited audience and make a one-one-one connection for the benefit of both, and I’ve continued to host them about twice a year since.

To learn more about the author visit her website.
To learn more about and purchase The Fourteenth of September, visit AMAZON

 

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One Comment

  1. Loved reading this conversation between Rita Dragonette and Heidi Richards Mooney. Such thoughtful questions followed by in-depth, insightful answers. I can’t wait to read this book!